I See A Lightness (And No, Mr. Kundera, It Is Not Unbearable)

Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy and The Palace Brothers) is the most bearded bard in all of indiedom, rivaled only by Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell, Sam Berm from Iron & Wine, and (occasionally) Jim James of My Morning Jacket. A photo of this man hung on a post office wall would suggest that he should be wanted for something by all major U.S. law enforcement agencies.

Fortunately, Mr. Oldham is only (as far as I know) wanted for his musical gifts, which are numerous. Like Steve Earle, Oldham manages to put something out there for the kids about once a year. This level of consistency (Oldham’s not Ryan Adams prolific, but that’s why he still makes good music) means that if Oldham puts out an album you don’t like, you wait twelve or fewer months and he’ll give you something else to sink your teeth into. His latest offering as Bonnie “Prince” Billy is the folksy as fuck Lie Down in the Light, another in a long line of home-runs for BPB (not counting a so-so covers album he did with Tortoise but choosing to count his collaboration with Matt Sweeney, his last few records have been fucking dynamite – quiet, melodic, harmony-rich dynamite). Ashley Webber joins the Bonnie Prince on this album for rousing tracks like “So Everyone,” (the best song about fucking in public that you’ll hear all year) and “You Want that Picture.” Webber continues Mr. Billy’s tradition of matching his high whiny voice to a more full-voiced female counterpart. The combination is pretty stirring to say the least.

This album has been out for a while so you may have read reviews of it already that declaim its greatness – “best album since I See A Darkness” is a common theme in the reviews I’ve seen. These laudatory sentiments are accurate; Lie Down in the Light is damn fine album, more country/folk than his last few records (although 2007’s The Letting Go was starting to tilt in that direction) but every bit as beautiful. Oldham has a knack for building a song to a beautiful chorus or sometimes even just a well-turned couplet and Lie Down in the Light is chock full of examples right out of the gate – “Easy Does It,” “You Remind Me,” and “So Everyone,” start the album with a soft bang (enter Phil Ken Sebben here: “Ha Ha Ha! ‘Bang!'”), setting the tone for what is, overall, the happiest Bonnie “Prince” Billy album I’ve ever heard (in the interest of full disclosure, my favorite BPB album is I See A Darkness, which is an album so depressing that I can imagine the Grim Reaper putting it on to cry himself to sleep the day his girlfriend leaves him, takes the dog with her, and then he gets a call informing him that his mom is next on his list of folks to escort into the sweet hereafter).

Where other BPB albums seem to trend between folksy indie and warped classic rock (see Superwolf for stellar examples of this), Lie Down in the Light picks up the ball that country music has dropped pretty much since the late 60’s – namely, music that sounds like country music. High lonesome harmonies like those on “What’s Missing Is” would make Hank Williams (the first and, in my opinion, the only Hank Williams – no, I am not ready for some fucking football) proud and probably more than a little misty-eyed. Some folks might file Mr. Billy under the dubious alt.country genre, but most of the stuff that people call alt.country is really just what country music used to be (country has mutated into pop now – listen to Patsy Cline then listen to Faith Hill and you’ll see what I mean; Faith Hill sucks. It’s also interesting to note that pop used to be The Beatles, R&B used to be Marvin Gaye, and jazz used to be John Fucking Coltrane – this is not to sound old fogeyish and suggest that everything was cooler Way Back When, but it’s to point out that genre has become meaningless. The best rock bands in the world right now might be considered “indie” or “alternative,” but they’re still rock bands. The best jazz musicians in the world… well… no, sorry; jazz died with Coltrane) – music free of the gimmickry and pop-schlockiness of your Trace Adkinses and Toby “Idiots for a Redneck Foreign Policy” Keiths (seriously, please, someone harm these individuals in a way that prevents them from making music ever again). Johnny Cash’s music was powerful because he wasn’t trying for pop-crossover success. He was trying to sing songs about being lonely and fucked up. And it worked because he was lonely and fucked up or, when he wasn’t lonely and fucked up, he could accurately recreate what it was to be lonely and fucked up. Bonnie Prince Billy (superbly covered on Mr. Cash’s American III – JC does “I See A Darkness,” and when he sees one, you sure as fuck do too. I don’t know why everyone had a thousand orgasms about his cover of “Hurt.” His rendition of “I See A Darkness” is not only far superior, but also one of the all-time most powerful songs I’ve ever heard, a cover version rivaled only perhaps by Joe Strummer’s take on “Redemption Song.”) usually paints a nice lonely and fucked up portrait as well and no one could accuse him of trying to write 2008’s “This Kiss.” He’s just doing what he does and sometimes it sounds folky and sometimes it sounds rocky, but it’s always worth the listen.

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